Sunday, November 23, 2014

To Become a Woman and a Writer, One Must Cast Aside Modesty

I grew up in a modest home.  The shadowed rooms with heavily curtained doors led from front to back, glossy stone floors changing colours at every doorway as if to mark each boundary, each space opening into another, more private one.  Strangers that came through the red metal gate were hosted on a pillared porch that overlooked the garden.  Acquaintances were let past the front door draped in dull burgundy into a drawing room lined with stiff sofas. Friends made it further, past veiled doorways into smaller, more personal chambers.  Only the closest of friends and family made it to the inner sanctum of a small dining room that opened to the walled-in back garden.  You see, the house itself was built for modesty, its inner spaces turning increasingly private, secret, feminine and familial with each hushed passageway.  

In turn the house taught us modesty, to cover and control wayward limbs, to speak softly and ‘enunciate,’ to not make a fuss or demand attention.  And the house insisted on a language that had to be spoken gracefully and formally. As children, we were even reprimanded in the formal.  Such was the propriety demanded by my home, that to this day, I cannot swear in my first language, first because we never learned the profanities, and second because my tongue refuses to twist around the coarse Hindi words I have learned as an adult.

And yet I knew from a very young age that I wanted to create stories, to write even if I never imagined a state of ‘being a writer.’  Even as a child, learning to negotiate the veiled doorways of my home, I knew that writing, like speaking loudly, was an immodest act.  Writing insists on not only speaking up, but speaking of things that many find shocking, horrific, and even taboo.  Writing demands the absolute opposite of propriety, insisting on deep passions and wild, violent expression.  In a house given to veils, physical, social and metaphorical, writing was not only the ultimate transgression, but much akin to playing with a giant blazing bonfire that may bring down the entire edifice.

After all, captive tongues are discreet, only wayward limbs are capable of revolutions, and modesty strangles all expression. And a language that binds cannot liberate.

Perhaps this is why English seemed so alluring, full of danger and promise.  I had intuited its pleasures before I learned to read, desiring the books that lined the higher shelves of my home.  I would rock-climb the tall bookshelves, using the lower ones as footholds, clinging perilously to the edges with sweat-slickened fingers to peer at the books in English that were ‘only for grown-ups.’  Hardbound classics and contemporary writing lined up like soldiers mingled with the riff-raff of luridly bright paperbacks bought by my youthful uncles and aunts.  When grown-ups read those books, their faces glowed, their eyes grew shaded, slight colour rose to their cheeks at times, and a sudden quickening breath would grab my attention.  Even as a child, I intuited that English books contained things we didn’t speak of in my home.

This is why I began school intent on learning English, determined to prepare myself for the day when I would possess it fully.  It was not an easy task, for the language not only demanded that I learn its words, but also insisted that I reveal myself, slipping off confining drapes, unwinding my limbs, loosening my tongue.  But I did not go unrewarded for long. Soon English began to reveal its own sinews and flesh, skin and bones, page by page, word by arcane word.  As my knowledge grew, it also began to tease me to wilder pathways, to rebellions I could not have imagined, to passions I would have not dared dream of. 

Over the years, as my skirts climbed higher, and my voice grew louder, I learned to enunciate a language that is not mine by birth, but one that I have claimed for myself. Jealously, without reason, and without doubt, like a lover I do not plan to relinquish.  Over the years, this foreign, even enemy, language has imbibed my dreams with passions dark and savage. It has pushed me to transgressions that may not have burnt down my home but have set many bridges afire.  In English, I write of lovers who betray, of war without honour, of all human frailties for which I was never taught the words in Hindi.

Most importantly, on my tongue, English turns into an enigmatic nautch-girl, sweet, seductive and dangerous.  Yes, English is an immodest language, yet I love her more for it. 

This was first publishes in The Spanner in June 2014 (Issue 11). 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Literary Parochialism and its Discontents

It will come as no news that UK structures of power are deeply averse to diversity (see here and here, just as examples) but a recent set of literary events have prompted me to examine both the issue and its consequences on culture, its production and circulation. The Exhibit B mess at the Barbican, when the protesters felt unheard while the 'establishment' closed ranks and few of the issues raised were addressed is possibly the starkest recent reminder of the parochialism in the the country's cultural establishment.  But I know the literary world best and I want to discuss that more closely.

Ten years of living in London and being actively engaged in writing and publishing means I have grown increasingly familiar with the literary 'establishment' - and here I mean the publishers, agents, editors, reviewers, etc. rather than academics (the latter require a whole other blog post). With few exceptions, literature doesn't pay, and it is necessary to note that most of the people involved in literary production and circulation are not only passionate but deeply committed.  Many are wonderful people (and I am fortunate to count many of my friends among them).

I say the above to make a simple point: on an individual level, the city's literary establishment is made up of wonderful human beings. On a structural, collective level however, there is another story.

It will come as no surprise  to most that Britain's literary establishment is as lacking in diversity as its academia, press, and various other fields (intriguingly, the much reviled City is also most diverse, perhaps as a result of focussing on profits, especially in a globalised world). A publisher recently described reviewers as results of 'public schools and some crack comprehensives.' He may as well have been talking of just about any part of the British literary world - with possible, and with caveats, exception of writers themselves.  It is this 'establishment' - made up of a very narrow group of people - not only impacts literary production, circulation and consumption as well as the larger issues of formation of 'taste', and assignation of cultural 'value.'

And this is where the narrow demographic that makes up this 'elite' becomes problematic. Race, gender, class, all contribute to our world-view. In case of literature (and cultural production in general), if most of the arbiters of taste and value - including the decisionmakers for books that are published, reviewed, win literary prizes - are drawn from a tiny homogenous group in society, we end up with a parochial mindset. So same sort of books are prized, same narratives are privileged, and indeed, same kind of authors lauded. A corollary of this is that passively, unconsciously - if not actively - alternative, 'different' voices are shut out. A closed communication loop is thus set up between a narrow group of people choosing the books they want to publish, others like them reviewing them, and even further more similar (if not the same) people serving on juries that reward them with recognition/prizes/cash/any and combinations of these.

One could argue that this has always been so (and I have heard these arguments made in earnest); that literature (or art, or theatre) has always been 'elite' arenas. One may also question if this matters at all. I would argue - and not only for personal reasons - that it does. A closed, homogenous group is self-affirming, parochial, incapable of change, and indeed eventually self-destructive.

In practice this means, for example, the inability to read, appreciate, or even be interested in literatures that do not reaffirm the entrenched (dominant) parochial world view. So books that are seen as 'different' are often only superficially so, and instead of challenging the parochialism, tend to reaffirm them. The lack of diversity of backgrounds, experiences, world views, and opinions mean that there is little or no challenge to the perpetual self-affirming feedback loop. This means even when a book is nominally different - presenting, for example, a working class, or non-white, or queer perspective, it is still selected, judged, viewed from a narrow and parochial lens. Difference or 'challenging' often becomes a question of form rather than content, providing a comfortable illusion of intellectual risk-taking without any real danger. This also means that even 'different' narratives are filtered to affirm the established ethos instead of challenging them. In such cases, superficial difference is seen as enough and anything more is considered discomfiting, alien, even confrontational (or my favourite, 'too strange'). Over time this creates a situation where comforting, familiar work is prized and anything challenging is either blocked, ignored, or left out. And indeed, this is where British literature and literary establishment stands in 2014.

Of course most of this is due to structural inertia. It is easier to read or publish or review material that reaffirms our own beliefs. Reading that challenges - intellectually or worse, ethically - is uncomfortable business. And more importantly, it is hard work! It is easier and more comfortable to stick to what we already know.

There is a real world price to be paid for this parochialism as this feedback loop excises cultural production from real world concerns. In a globalised and interconnected world, there is real economic, political, even military cost to such deliberate ignorance. A society that shuts out most of its people from representation in, and production and consumption of culture, will find itself increasingly unable to examine or understand itself. Such a society will be incapable of not only recognising internal and external threats and risks to itself.  This society will also find itself incapable of examining or reflecting on not only the changes that may be necessary but also the transformations that are forced upon it by circumstance and history.

This refusal to engage with difference and discomfort also has serious cultural consequences. It creates a stale, staid conservative culture that is neither capable of growth nor change. It also steeps itself in nostalgia, in endless replication and repetition of supposedly valuable form while sacrificing substance. And finally, it stops engaging with the very society that sustains, nourishes and at the end consumes the cultural products that are created.

There is also a practical, even commercial angle to this. This literary/cultural parochialism also limits both sales and potential markets due to a seemingly endless replication of an ever narrowing set of narratives, viewpoints and world views. Regardless of UKIP-style nostalgia, Britain has irrevocably changed - demographically and culturally, and this change urgently needs to be reflected in the narratives and cultural production.  In many ways, one can argue, that this contemporary Britain is already producing and consuming culture even if it is shut out of the art, literary or cultural 'establishments.'  One could even make the case that perhaps the most exciting, challenging literature, art, theatre is emerging from places that hidden, and even far beyond the reach of the 'establishment.' But this would only be one side of the picture. Ignoring, refusing, actively or passively shutting out narratives, cultural products, world views that engage with the larger society, means fewer books are sold and read, both internally and externally. Moreover the arbiters of 'taste' remain in their fossilised glory, ever more irrelevant to the culture and society beyond.

This also means diminishing influence both within Britain and abroad. Internally, this means fewer readers engaging with a 'culture' that appears remote because does not include their concerns, anxieties, or stories.  Instead they are finding narratives in texts from countries across the globe (made accessible by the Amazon behemoth). Abroad, it means a loss of soft power (which Britain has exercised very well, especially through its literary production) and thus a diminishing of diplomatic, political, cultural, and eventually economic influence.

Of course, none of the arguments above are particularly new and there is little doubt that diversity matters. Few, even in publishing, would argue against it. The problem - however - is of inertia, of a passive and parochial literary elite that appear to prefer pulling up the drawbridge instead of engaging with the world beyond.  Frankly, even after ten years, I can see no way of persuading them to venture beyond their blissfully ignorant comfort zone.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Muscovado: A Disturbing, Powerful Play that Heralds an Extraordinary New Voice

A school night, in the midst of a busy week, and a very full day of teaching is almost enough to dissuade one from venturing across the river for pretty much anything. Add a blustery, rainy day, and Clapham Commons seemed even further away from my north London office. Still, I had tickets and company to nudge me along, so off I the Holy Trinity Church, that almost forgotten spiritual - and political - home of William Wilberforce who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade.  It seems apt, in retrospect, that I went to the church - for the first time, last night - to see Muscovado, written by the startlingly talented young playwright Matilda Ibini, and produced by Burnt Out Theatre

The brand new play had an initial run of ten days as part of Black History Month, but I might as well tell you right off the bat, it should be running at a major venue, backed by Britain's theatre big-wigs, and be seen by a LOT more people.  And frankly, if British Council and other tax-payer funded organisations are listening, they should be sending this one abroad too! 

We were greeted by a cheery atmosphere at the entrance, and my first reaction was surprise, and gladness, at very racially diverse, mixed audience -  in terms of race, ethnicity, class and nationality. Sadly, theatre-going in London - despite all its diversity - can be a strangely mono-racial phenomenon and I often feel marked out as the 'odd' one in most audiences. There were other little welcoming signs: in addition to the usual glasses of wine, there was the option of a warming, lovely rum punch. And much welcome it was after my cold, exhausting day! There was also a stand from the Caribbean Cafe selling the most delicious, restorative, food; ladies, you saved my life! 

As the doors opened and we streamed into the church, we were greeted by Parson Lucy (played by James G Gunn), and other characters from the play were already dotted around, seated in pews, eerily lit by candle light, or slowly weaving their way through the shadows. It can be tricky to perform in a space that isn't a formal theatre, but the director Clemmie Reynolds used the space well, and placing the actors in the church established an early complicity and intimacy with the spectator that made the play itself much more disturbing. 

The play itself unfolds in 1808 on the Fairbranch sugar plantation in Barbados. The timing is key as a year before Wilberforce had successfully pushed through the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in British parliament. On the Fairbranch plantation however, the Act brings little change to the slaves' brutalised lives, and commercial calculations of its owners. The set was sparse yet effective, with props moved around, and the church surroundings were used fully to stage, with the audience seated in the pews in the chancel, and a few chairs spilling out into the nave. 

The plot skilfully weaves together multiple characters including the plantation owner's wife and daughter, the local parson, and various slaves. However, Muscovado keeps the owner of the plantation as an off-stage yet all-powerful, sinister presence/absence. It is a masterful choice, signalling the invisible pervasiveness of racial, gender, and class privileges that continue to this day. It is this off-stage evil 'deity' who repeatedly rapes his wife, Kitty, and in a grotesque coming-of-age ritual, is also the invisible rapist of the distraught child-slave Willa (who may/may not be his daughter).

While the most upsetting parts of the play are familiar to us from slave narratives - the whippings, humiliations, brutal violence in guise of discipline, the casual but persistent degradations and dehumanisations of quotidian plantation life - they draw power from a source that is not often seen on screen or stage. Muscovado presents the Fairbranch slaves as fully formed humans, not merely as props for a morality play; they dream, they dare to laugh and love, they find hope and strength in unexpected places, and most importantly they continue to resist by reasserting their humanity in innumerable small acts, words and thoughts of defiance and courage. The script has - perhaps unsurprisingly - been compared to Twelve Years a Slave

I would reject that comparison. I found Muscovado more humane and more powerful of the two as it finds little need to make narrative and commercial compromises. Unlike the film, the play offers no easy resolutions. But it also refuses to let historically dominant narratives push slaves to the sidelines of their own history. Instead Muscovado offers one of the few instances where non-white bodies - and even more importantly female black bodies - occupy centre stage, in all their fullness, complexity, grace, and tragedy. 

There has been a long tradition - in writing, art, and performance - of silencing and erasing the female nonwhite body from our stories, stages, screens and imaginations; Muscovado is compelling for its powerful insistence on placing the ignored, fetishized, brutalised black female (and a single male) bodies, lives, and beings at the centre of its narrative. By keeping the sexual and non-sexual violence inflicted on the black female body off-stage, it refuses to let the audience revert to the default practices of fetishization we have been taught and thus distance ourselves.  Furthermore, by similarly keeping Miss Kitty's rapes off-screen, it forces us to examine both the similarities and brutal disparities of gendered violence; and yet by performing Willa's invisible violation on-stage, the play also refuses to excise the role of race in gendered violence.

Moreover, the script fully explores the complex web of relationships, oppression and brutality of slavery and racialised oppressions. It does not shy away from messy hierarchies of gender and race: Kitty is not only fully complicit in the exploitation and brutalisation of slaves, she is also the mastermind who realises the ban on slave trade can be subverted by using her own slaves as 'breeding stock.'  Yet, she is at the same time, also a raped, desperate, isolated wife who can find few allies and fewer friends and can drunkenly order a house slave to help her kill herself.  

Muscovado also confronts the role of the church, and its clergy in upholding, maintaining, and actively promoting slavery, thus also reminding us of the ways organised religion - and religious scriptures - were, are, and can be used to justify the most inhumane and unjust practices and structures. Parson Lucy's hate filled racist rant took on particular resonance when delivered from the Holy Trinity Church's pulpit.  I couldn't help but imagine that Wilberforce himself had likely heard similar justifications of slavery and wondered yet again about how and why some (so few) of us refuse the dominant narratives of our times, and the necessity of such dissent. 

The play is both powerful and disturbing, and more so for its insistence on complexity. The dialogue is both unflinching and at times scorching. Despite a myriad range of characters, the script maintains tight control of each character's trajectory.  If there are some loose ends, such as for Olive's fate, they offer a glimmer of hope, however false, in a bleak setting. The end is shocking, upsetting and unpredictable, perhaps because the motivations of all involved are clear and familiar, but also because the multiple layers of complicity are rarely explored in narratives about slavery, or indeed contemporary race and racism. 

The actors were well suited to their part, and I walked away once again wishing there were more room for talented non-white actors on British stage. Alex Kissin as Asa, DK Fashola as Elsie and Shanice Grant as Olive brought both emotional power and physical vulnerability to their parts. It is a credit to the script, the director and the actors, that despite the brutal setting and theme, it still provoked empathic and not only discomfited laughter. 

The Holy Trinity Church made a symbolically apt setting for the play although the acoustics are not ideal. I do wish however that Muscovado would find a longer run and larger stage for itself: it is ambitious, complex, powerful, and it delivers dramatic, emotional and political punch. That it is the work of a playwright not yet twenty-three is both extraordinary, and exhilarating for the promise it holds for the future. 

Full disclosure: I know the playwright Matilda Ibini who graduated from the Creative Writing programme where I teach. However, she did not take many classes with me and I can certainly claim no hand in her growth and stature as a writer. I am however very privileged to have watched her grow as an intellect and a writer during her degree. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A new era, and a wild card for India

There has been much analysis already of India's mammoth general elections and its new dispensation, specially the enigmatic new prime minister.  Most of analysis seems to range from gung-ho cheerleading from BJP supporters or desperate, now-the-deluge- hand-wringing from India's 'progressives. As a centrist, who leans right on fiscal matters but left on social ones, I have found both unsatisfactory and incomplete. More importantly, as someone who can write in English but has roots deep in India's rural heartland, and relies on a network of Hindi language news sources, local politicians, journalists and activists to get a sense of the grassroots, some of the analysis - and indeed political reactions and predictions - has felt quite distant from what I observed during my visit to India in April.

Firstly, there is no doubt that Modi - and it is important to distinguish this from the larger party - ran a tight, energetic, efficient, tireless campaign. BJP has shown itself riven by factions, centred often around strong personalities, but Modi early in the campaign seemed to circumvent, and in later stages, sweep all the factions along in his wake. Much kudos to his team that were able to manage the internal politics and divisions of the party.

While I may be seen as overly optimistic, this may bode well for governance of India. One criticism of Modi has been his authoritarian style, one that may work perhaps for a chief minister but will fail when confronting the mind-boggling diversity of interests a prime minister must address. His campaign's ability to rein in, manage and carry along the often very disparate elements of the BJP and its allies may be an indicator that Modi is not nearly as much of a solo player as many in the media have made him out to be.  

Secondly, I was struck by the positive tone of the BJP campaign. The 'achchhe din aane wale hain" (good days are coming) slogan may have sounded cheesy to metropolitan ears, but by focussing on quotidian but necessary needs - education, irrigation, welfare of the girl child - it appealed to those in small towns and villages who struggle to access even the most basic services and products a functioning state should provide. In comparison, the Congress television campaigns focussed on the past, seemed to be more about receiving largesse rather than tools of empowerment, and in one particularly tin-eared instance featured a Sikh 'farmer' lauding the party. A focus on past achievements is most unlikely to win support, specially amongst a predominantly youthful population focussed more on the future. 

It is also worth noting here that BJP also brought in an online code of conduct for its less than media savvy party rank-and-file in 2013. This rag-tag band of supporters led by some party members had caused immense PR damage, attacking and abusing anyone they felt was the 'enemy.'  In doing so, they often relied on grotesque sexist, caste-ist and sectarian abuse, demonstrating to critics the veracity of the party's (and Modi's) hateful underbelly.  Modi's team was smart to rein them in and limit the damage they could have caused in the months leading up to the elections. (Full disclosure: I was also attacked by these keyboard warriors for a period of about 10 months. I have been most surprised that they have gone dormant since mid-2013). 

However, without minimizing BJP's achievement in running a stellar political campaign, it is also necessary to note that circumstances were finally appropriate for a change in dispensation. I had expected the 2009 polls to push forward an anti-Congress shift: a youthful demographic with huge percentage desperate for development, education, jobs and with hopes for the future seemed quite unlikely to accept privileged heirs to various political and business dynasties as the face of change (led by Rahul Gandhi). I was wrong then, but perhaps the tipping point had not been reached, and in 2009, BJP was a deeply divided party that could not marshal a campaign, much less a government. The internecine rivalries were such that various party leaders worked harder to ensure the loss of their own candidates than to attempt winning the election. 

Both party discipline and demographic change within the voters combined this time to deliver a BJP electoral victory. Here it is crucial to note that the UPA-II was mortally wounded not only by the many scams, absymal economic policies, lack of governance and an increasingly hubristic attitude to the voter. UPA-II's attitude to popular movements ranging from Anna Hazare's Lokpal/anti-corruption demonstrations to the post-Delhi gang rape student protests was more reminiscent of colonial action than anything undertaken by elected representatives. It was also - far more than many 'progressive' analysts are willing to accept - hurt by the Gandhi clan!

Sonia Gandhi's super-PM-ship may have been possible in a time before social media and the dizzying array of small, regional, traditional and electronic media outlets. But the constant attempts to blame UPA-II for lack of governance while crediting her with any tiny positive decision or PR victory resulted in making her look dictatorial, albeit benignly so. Congress - better than any other party - should remember, after the Emergency, that the Indian voter may look for a strong leader but is not very amenable to dictatorial ones. Her inept son, Rahul Gandhi, fell into similar patterns, publicly tearing up bills tabled in the parliament, flaunting not his 'moral' credentials but rather his arrogant contempt for a parliamentary democracy. 

Priyanka, who has till now played the constant politico-familial bridesmaid, may have been hyped by the media, but her arrogance turned off more voters in the Hindi heartland than Congress (and their press enablers) are willing to believe. It is also delusional to believe that her much hyped resemblance to Indira Gandhi carries much resonance with voters who are mostly under the age of thirty, and thus have little memory - fond or otherwise - of that leader. 

What I was struck by most, however, was the levels of personalised resentment against the Gandhi clan.  In 2014, for many average voters - the storekeepers, farmers, taxi drivers, students who comprise the unstable but growing lower-middle class - the Gandhi clan had become a symbol of not only arrogance and entitlement, but rapacious greed. I was also struck by the numbers who expressed disdain for a dynastic structure of power, insisting that they wanted leaders who had 'done something' rather than 'part of a family.' A corollary to this is the rejection of the politics of largess, where populist hand-outs can win votes. This may well be a result of changes in economic and literacy levels of the population, but for me, it seems to be a positive development. 

In many ways, the Varanasi election can provide an insight into Modi's - and BJP's - success. The city lies in a primarily rural belt that has been long ignored by the Delhi administration, and battered by caste-ist politics of the likes of SP and BSP. Despite the numbers of religious tourists, and its location as a regional centre for education, medicine, business, Varanasi has seen little development, much corruption, and almost criminal neglect by both state and central administrations. Sadly, even then, Varanasi has received more attention that the neighbouring towns and villages, where poverty can reach sub-Saharan levels, there is little difference between political leaders and mob bosses, and police, district administration, judiciary and politicians collude to pillage the land with near impunity. Indeed, in most instances, there is little difference between the government in the area and the criminals. 

Few in the media noted that part of the Modi-mania in the streets of Varanasi and elsewhere in the country was also equally about desperation. At least in Purvanchal, there is a sense of utter desperation and despair, and many are willing to accept any change, because they believe they are already living the worst.

Varanasi is also in many ways a microcosm of India. It is one of the most sacred sites for Hindus and attracts millions of religious tourists. Just beyond the city limits, Sarnath continues to be a crucial Buddhist sacred site. It also boasts of the world-famous silk industry, now in an advanced state of decay, and almost entirely composed of Muslim weavers. The city also has neighbourhoods that have been historically dominated by communities from various parts of India, drawn there for its religious significance and settled within the city boundaries for centuries. It is worth noting that despite the platitudes about Varanasi's pluralism - and secularism - in much of Indian press, the communities do not always co-exist without tensions. Economic scarcity and political manipulation have in recent decades added to these inter-community tensions. 

The 2014 elections marked a big change for Varanasi, the surrounding region, and by extension for the country. The Congress candidate was a well-known mobster, known for violent crime. The AAP candidate offered a middle-class 'new' option but was seen in the city as Congress's B-team, specially amongst many of the middle-class. Modi - who received rapturous welcome from many - was received circumspectly by the numerous Muslim voters in the city. His reputation - and the lingering stain of 2002 Gujarat riots - made that inevitable. But for the first time in many election cycles, many in the city and the region dared to hope that political attention may lead to positive changes.

However now the city waits - much like the country - divided between wild hopes and guarded ones, but also with fear amongst some and palpable worry. In Varanasi, Modi has made specific promises for development of the city. He has also reached out - not in the vote-bank way of Congress, SP and BSP - to the Muslim community. While he has refused the facile symbolic political gestures such as visiting the Gyan Vaapi mosque, he has promised 24-hour power supply to the weavers, as well as twinning them with the industry in Surat. As a sound-bite generator, this makes little news. But for those of us who know how desperately the weaving community needs assistance, this holds out a ray of hope. 

There is also talk (unconfirmed) of a PMO office branch in the city, suggesting that Modi will be spending at least some of his time in the city and far from the rarified confines of Lutyen's Delhi. In the days since the elections results were announced, the city has been on knife-edge, waiting with bated breath for 'change' to begin, and every bulldozer, every crane heading to a public site is seen as a symbol of that change. There is a sense of anticipation, hope, a barely suppressed shiver of excitement that I - for one - cannot remember from before. 

Therein also lies the danger: Modi has promised 'good days,' and we all know these can't be delivered overnight. And yet, he will need to deliver, and fast. In many ways, he has much leeway specially in areas like Varanasi, Purvanchal and much of the non-metropolitan India that has been so ignored and depleted that any change will be gratefully accepted. At the same time, he is faced with a young, clamouring population that may fast run out of patience if the promised changes are not visible soon. 

Then there is Modi himself. Hero and villain, depending on who speaks. Messiah for his fans, the veritable face of evil for his detractors. Despite his many appearances on television, there is little public sense of the man himself. His track record as chief minister is mixed, albeit better than most others (although given many of India's chief ministers, this may be a particularly low bar). 

I have written about Modi before, and while I am (still) not a fan, I do not believe his prime ministership will spell the end of India, or indeed marks the country's transformation into a fascist dictatorship. A majority he has been given makes his path easier to push through some of his governance agenda but I doubt his government will lead to sectarian pogroms as many seem to predict. But then again, I have been called an incurable optimist by many. I choose to remain so, specially when it comes to India, and even now when the country has thrown up a wild card.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Surviving Casual Racism: I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends

Last month, I posted this piece on casual racism. Many of you read and commented on it, here and various social media platform.  I also posted the piece on my FB wall where it had a more intimate, disturbing, and yet ultimately heartening reception. It also became a sort of learning experience and an odd measure of the people in my life. I had been planning on writing a follow up piece but as some of you will know (from my twitter feed), another unexpected and hurtful incident occurred yesterday. In many ways, it cemented what I had written about in my original piece. But it also threw into stark relief what I have noticed and learned in the last few weeks. So here are some of thse new insights:

First, for some odd reason, racism hurts more than sexism does. I am not quite sure why this is the case, but increasingly I feel that it is linked to growing up in an environment where I did not face racism on a daily basis. As a female child in India, sexism was, and still is, part of my life from the earliest moments of consciousness, and I learned from many people - both male and female - to identify it and resist it.

Racism, however, was something quite academic. I knew about it, I even experienced it indirectly and structurally as a colonial legacy, but I never faced it on an individual level until I landed in New York City as a sixteen year old. Because I came to individuated racism late, I experience and resist it differently:

1. I notice it and I lack the ability to ignore it
2. I am more hurt by it as I don't guard against racism as vigilantly as against sexism, mostly because I don't expect it and so am baffled each time.
3. I have increasingly lower tolerance for racism. But I also have increasingly lower tolerance for all forms of injustice.  I thought age would inure me, but instead it seems to make me less patient. Perhaps 'intimations of mortality' urge me to fight this more desperately because I know I have increasingly less time to do so.

Secondly, I realised that until recently, I would not speak about racism except to friends who were, like me, people of colour. I didn't feel comfortable enough speaking about racism to white friends, mostly because I didn't want them to pity me.

In this sense, racism is like many other forms of intimate violence. The humiliation and pain of being reduced, othered, and dehumanised is so great that I felt that I could only share the feeling and seek support amongst other victims.

Yet posting the piece last month has opened up a new, and in many ways, liberating and empowering world for me. Yes, writing the piece has meant I lost a couple of friends - mostly people I didn't know that well and who felt that the piece was 'attacking' them personally. In one case, someone I have not seen for twenty years took issue with the piece on facebook and demonstrated just how embedded racism can be.

On the other hand, writing openly about racism I face in my daily life, mostly in small gestures and words, also blasted open the doors to other conversations. Many friends wrote and messaged to offer support and unconditional love. In the last month, I have had conversations about racism with many white friends, discussing the insidious ways racism turns up. In all these cases, I have been fortunate to find allies who want to listen, understand, find ways to support me, and try to change things at their own individual levels.

I had long worried that speaking openly about daily racism may be seen by white friends as 'drama' or 'over reaction.' Instead I had a friend point out that I regularly 'hid' the racism I experience, and asked me why I did so.  It was only after that conversation, I realised that he is right: I do hide racist incidents, and for multiple reasons.

The humiliation seems never ending and acute, and talking about a racist incident revives the trauma of living it.

In an odd way, telling white friends about racist incidents makes me feel less than equal to them. Even as I write this, I can intellectually recognise it as a victim's reasoning, similar in some ways as that of abuse survivors.

Experiencing racism makes me feel 'dirty,' even though it isn't my fault. Experiencing racism makes me question myself and makes me wonder if I 'deserve' it. It heightens every insecurity I have about my achievements and experience. Each racist incident - no matter how small and unthinking - reminds me that regardless of my experiences and achievements, I can be reduced and dehumanised on basis of my skin colour. It also makes me paranoid and makes me question what white colleagues, friends, bosses 'really' think of me.

In addition, recounting it to white friends, makes me feel the humiliation all over again, because it is something they never have to face, never have to experience. It is a privilege they have that I will never be able to access, and speaking to them, the structural imbalance of power between us threatens to overturn whatever sense of equality we share.

In turn that recognition of inequality threatens any friendship we have. After all, aren't friendships made and shared amongst equals? Can we still be friends if we are unequal, at an intrinsic biological level?

Yet the past month of discussing racism openly with white friends has been illuminating. Speaking about the humiliation of racist experiences has dissipated some of the shame and anger. I have also been consistently surprised, heartened and comforted by the support I have found.

I have also found that the cliche about speaking up in relationships matters. While racism is something my white friends don't experience in their daily lives, they are not oblivious that I face it. All they need from me is trust that they stand on my side. And they need me - not always - but at times, to tell them how to fight my corner. They are already staunch allies, they just need to know how they can protect, help and nourish me.

I don't have race privilege and never will. On the other hand, I have a hell of a lot of friends who do have that privilege who recognise and question it, acknowledge the injustice, and most importantly, stand by me as equals. Not on racial grounds, but as humans.

If I were the religious sort, I would say, that is a blessing! 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

An Open Letter to White Friends: How Not to be a Racist (Even Unconsciously)

Dear friends,
As my friends, you are part of a group that is international, diverse, and for most part, extraordinarily liberal. In some ways, you are probably more open to difference than the rest of society and therefore, in many ways, at the cutting edge of social change. And yet, just as many men who adore their wives and daughters but can still be deeply misogynist, being friends with me - an obvious woman of colour - does not mean you automatically stop behaving in ways that is racist.

Note: this does not mean that you ARE racist. But it does mean that sometimes the things you say or do are racist. And no, you don't have to burn crosses in my lawn or make up a lynch mob to be racist. Being oblivious to historic inequalities, disparate privileges, and or how these impact my daily life is also racist (and therefore damaging). So is repeating and replicating behaviour that confirms historical power inequities.]

In a friendship, we like to believe we are equals.

Unfortunately, a love for pinot grigio or an understanding of Italian Futurism does not automatically erase structural inequalities that some of us have to face, and fight, on a daily basis. This also means that unthinkingly racist acts, or acts that have a long racist history, the same acts that we face as micro-aggressions on a daily basis, are supremely hurtful when performed by you.

As your non-white friend who deals with racial micro-aggressions (and sometimes macro ones) on a daily basis, it is not excessive to expect friends - of any colour or background - should be a safe space for me. But our friendship also means that the unthinking acts of micro-aggression hurt more coming from you than from a random stranger.

However, I realise that levels of invisible social, cultural and psychological privilege that Western societies offer to its white citizens means that you probably have not ever thought about how you behaviour can come off as racist - or indeed hurtful because of the implicit racism - so here are a few pointers:

1. Understand that your seemingly innocent acts can be triggers. Most non-white people have a few centuries of embedded memory and their own lifetime of experience of inequality and prejudice. We grew up with this and live with it. And no, this is not 'playing the victim' or 'using the race card.' It is just my daily, normal life.

This lived experience and memory means your actions will have larger significance and import, often in ways you do not understand. This also means that what may count as 'banter' and 'fun' to you may well be quite hurtful to me.

There is a simple way to deal with this: stop, observe and listen.

2. Realise that a lot of what we use as normal terminology has deep racist roots. You may never have had to deal with these words as dehumanising, or with demeaning terms and images, but your non-white friends  have and do on a daily basis. So terms and actions that seem 'normal fun' to you can be not only deeply racist, but also horribly hurtful.

3. When a nonwhite friend calls you out for racist behaviour, it obviously hurts your image of yourself. Especially if you think of yourself as liberal and 'non-racist.'

However, chances are that your one act that has actually been called out has been the final proverbial one to 'break the camel's back.' Most non-white people are so accustomed to racist acts and speech on a daily basis that unless something really stands out, most of us won't protest. Many of us make the choice between social interaction, friendship, even love, and demanding equality and human dignity on a daily basis.

And yes, that does means I choose - on a regular basis - how much prejudiced humiliation I can take from you in exchange for being your friend. Yes, I am sure that sounds terrible to you but it is a choice I make in order to live, work, love, in a society that systemically devalues me for the colour of my skin.

We make this choice not because we don't hurt. It is just that if we protested every act of prejudice in our daily lives, we would not get through a single day. If we insisted that we be treated equally at every moment we are demeaned, we would not survive a single hour. We would not have a single friend, colleague or boss who would be white. We would be forced to limit our existence in a closed ghetto, with all its corollaries of material, social, emotional and psychological poverty. (And then we would be blamed for closing ourselves off!)

So when you ARE called out on behaving in a racist way, realise that your behaviour or speech has been unconsciously hurtful for a long time before your friend spoke up. Chances are you have been hurtful for much longer than you imagine, recognise or are able to accept.  You should not be feeling hurt that your friend called out your racism, but horrified that they have been forced to do so.

4. If your non-white friend does call you out on something, try and stop yourself from (1) announcing that you are NOT racist; (2) explain how you are part Asian/African/Native American/Hispanic - these are not free passes for prejudice; (2) demand that they educate you on what you did/said to offend them, all the while declaring that they 'misunderstood' you.  Yes, defensiveness is an instinctive response and an understandable one. But it is also the least useful of responses.

Yes, being told that you are bigoted hurts. But being the daily target of bigotry hurts a HELL OF A LOT MORE. And racist behaviour or speech does not have to stem from active prejudice. So much prejudiced behaviour and speech is normalised and acceptable that few of us who are not on the receiving end of the hatred are even aware of the how much bigotry marks our daily existence.

Also understand that it isn't your non-white friend's job to explain and educate you. If you care about that friendship/relationship (or not being racist), it is your job to LEARN the innumerable ways in which racism is normalised in our daily existence and try not to repeat those.

5. One final pointer: 'race blindness' is actually a form of racism. Refusing to acknowledge that your non-white friends have different (and often horrifically damaging) experiences does not make you non-racist. It actually reinforces your racial privilege. All too often 'race blindness' is also used as a mechanism for saying and doing things that are racist and hurtful but with a comforting fig leaf of being socially acceptable. If this is you, then stop!

Structural racism means that even if you went to the same schools, make the same amount of money, live in the same neighbourhoods, and shop in the same stores, your non-white friend is treated differently. Not because of an innate ability but because of how they look. A lifetime of being treated differently means that your non-white friend looks at things you take for granted (bars, immigration counters, designer shops) very differently. What may be a small, normal, indulgence for you - like a trip to the spa - may well be a point of stress or fear for them. Refusing to acknowledge this difference does not make you non-racist. It makes you insensitive and callous!

Yes, acknowledging this inequality will likely make you uncomfortable. Recognising that you have privilege based on the colour of your skin IS uncomfortable. Or it should be! But the way to deal with the discomfort is not to wish it away or argue that you don't have the privilege. Or pretend a non-existent equality because that erases your 'friend's' life and experience.

The way you deal with the discomfort is by consciously and actively recognising those structural inequalities that your non-white friend lives on a daily basis. You can't wish the discomfort any case, it will be a negligible fraction of what your non-white friend lives with on a daily basis. What you can do is recognise, acknowledge, accept the difference. And what you should do is introspect and question yourself on the ways your behaviour reflects, replicates and sustains small forms of bigotry. To you those may be negligible but to others, who cope with those micro-aggressions daily, those form a huge, overwhelming edifice of prejudice.

In many ways the world has moved forward even in the last few decades. It is increasingly difficult to remain in racially exclusive enclaves. Diversity - of language, race, ethnicity - is increasingly our 'normal' in our workplaces, our social networks, our homes and our bedrooms.

But the diversity also means that old rules of behaviour and speech don't work any more. That is also good! Yes, it is uncomfortable (and will continue to be so for a long time) to accept that your behaviour and speech must change. Change - and improvement - is always born of discomfort and its recognition.

None of us is perfect or born knowing everything. We go through life learning and changing. The fact that you have a non-white friend is a good starting point: it means that you are at least open to learning and changing.

With affection,
Your non-white friend

Friday, January 03, 2014

On Allies: May there be ever more in 2014

Yes, I know. I missed the year-end reflections on all I had learned in 2013. I have also missed the new year resolutions moment.  However given my recent readings and discussions, and in the spirit of optimism, I have decided to kick off the year with a post about allies.

As an ally to various causes that are not intrinsically my own, I come to this topic with some degree of understanding and experience.  When it comes to supporting causes in countries like Egypt or Guatemala or the Democratic Republic of Congo, I am not always fully educated about the complexities. In case of my support for equal rights, as a straight cis-woman, I can't even in my imagination experience what my LGBTQ friends do on a daily basis. And in case of racism, Mandela's death reminded me of my time in apartheid South Africa and how the experience of racism changes by location, period, structure and individual.

And yet as someone who discovered the theory of intersectionality soon after being disillusioned by mainstream Western liberal activism at university, I can also see that there is a way forward. At university, I had found little room for my experience as an Indian woman whose life did not fit the easy 'oppressed over there' category. As a foreigner who did not buy into the 'American dream' and planned to leave after finishing my degree, I could also not be categorised in the 'good immigrant' slot. There was also very little room for an Indian with a 'nice' education in many of the anti-racism groups as many believed my university education and Indian-ness inoculated me from racism in America (To be fair and honest, yes, it did and still does protect me from the worst excesses of structural and individuated racism in the US and various other countries). On one hand, few groupings, both in or outside India, represent my personal concerns and interests. On the other hand, my experience at the margins means I experience a range of micro-aggressions (and major discrimination) based on gender, class, race, nationality and so on on a daily basis. No surprise that intersectionality is the most logical way of explaining my liminal existence.

But living liminally is also a great advantage, I have learned. One finds points of contact, recognition and identification in the most unusual places. Liminality also ensures that I am always aware of my structural privileges and of my acute disadvantages, and am conscious that these are constantly changing based on my location and surroundings. I have learned to negotiate both my privilege and its lack with relative expertise, barring of course the regular, still unforeseen glitches.

This has also taught me how to be an ally, for causes where my support may be necessary but any intervention may well be unwelcome.  In no particular order, here are the rules to be an ally that I developed for myself (and apply):

1. Listen first. And listen hard. There may be points of similarity between struggles but my first job is to learn everything I can about another's cause.

2. Even if I know a lot, or even more than a local interlocutor, keep my mouth shut. It is not my struggle and often 'offering insight/help/suggestions' is seen as and can really be a form of appropriation.

3. Offer tactical and practical support, but do not insist on it. Know about how to deal with tear gas? Offer the information. Have experience about protest safety? Extend that knowledge. Lawyer? Medic? PR expert? Offer my expertise but don't take it personally if it is rejected. At the end, it is NOT my cause.

4. If I am allowed to participate and get involved, don't feel smug. This is not about me, it is about the people who are fighting and will continue fighting when I have left (An aside: my pet peeves include the entire genre of war/revolution/civil war stories and films where the generally Western hero jets in with good intention, 'grows' by being part of someone else's struggle - often even gets to lead it - and the story ends when he/she flies out).

5. Don't make a fuss when I am rejected. And for god's sake don't get on a high horse because my good intentions didn't cut the slack.  Remind myself: this is not about you!

6. If allowed to participate, ensure that I do not - by my knowledge, expertise or personality - end up at the centre of the movement/group/struggle. Even in a protest march or demonstration, my place is to the side of the key players, not at the front and centre.

7. Don't expect gratitude or indeed any acknowledgement. I chose to join someone else's struggle and it isn't their job to reward or even acknowledge me for my 'generosity.'

8. Keep reminding myself: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU (rinse and repeat as necessary).

However, the biggest lesson that I have learned - and apply to myself - is simpler: compassion. Perhaps I should clarify that I use the term loosely to indicate the range of meanings it evokes for me from the Indic traditions, including that of karuna, samvedana, and dayavirata.

Over the years, I have realised why so many Indic texts describe compassion as a difficult experience and idea. It is because compassion demands far more than most of us imagine: an ability to feel another's pain without centering ourselves in that suffering. In simple terms, for me compassion is about feeling the pain of another, of approaching them with a view to ease that pain, even if only by recognising and acknowledging it clearly. Compassion, in this definition, requires suppressing the need 'to do good' by appropriating another's decision-making and agency. Compassion in this sense insists that we allow the injured party to make their own choices, even if it means they reject us. After all, any pain of rejection we may experience will still be a miniscule fraction of their agony.

As I continue to fight my own battles, and stand as ally for those I care for, I sometimes forget that my allies can offer me the same kind of compassion.  It is easy, I know, when one is hurting to believe that any offer of support is another micro-aggression, another attempt to appropriate one's narrative and suffering. In those instances, it takes an enormous effort for me to accept that I too have allies. After the initial surprise at their response, I am always grateful for their compassion.

I end with a poem written by an ally after I had another unpleasant real world encounter with prejudice. As I raged on twitter, Sandy Nicholson tweeted this to me:

Let's make swords out of things! That sounds fun!
Let's make swords out of things! That sounds fun! / Stare at me all you want. I choose not to give peace a chance.

And the only thing really evolving is information, From matter to animals to humans to technology.

It's all really just about storage space, and if that's all you have planned for yourself then I've already won this fight.
You can talk to me about progress if you want but the end of that timeline is our extinction either way.
so don't be so eager to iron out all the creases.
I choose instead to get pissed off when my friends are cornered

by a the kind of meat and potatoes idiocy that should really be boring by now. Never mind offensive. It's boring.
I choose not to let logic and decency form a callous over the part of me that gets angry.

I don't just want to win the war against casual racism I want to leave it looking like a knife fight

I want to cut trombones from victory laps And I want to have fun doing it
So bring me some sharp stuff I'll forget how to hold it properly and prick all my fingers but I'll do it honestly.

I may not win the battle, but I'll fight it so you know for sure whose side I was on (it was yours)

It did exactly what allies are supposed to do. Offered recognition of my hurt and extended compassion. And it reminded me that I am not alone.
Happy new year!

PS. Another lovely tweep, MJ Berryman storifyed the poem and it does read quite amazingly in tweets so do look it up.